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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
By Brooke West
World War II interrupted Manuel Salazar Mejia's academic endeavors when, as an 18-year-old high school sophomore, he enlisted in the Army in May of 1942.
One of five children born to immigrants from Zacatecas, Mexico, Mejia was raised in Kansas City, Kan. His father, Fidel Mejia, a butcher, and his mother, Ignacia Salazar Mejia, a housewife, struggled with finances. They depended on a large family-tended garden, in which they grew "corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, onions, peppers, some potatoes," Mejia said.
Born April 6, 1925, he says he remembers playing in the hills around the colonia where his family lived. A schoolyard was close to his home, but Latino children weren’t allowed access to the area. At the time, Hispanics were segregated throughout Kansas City, as well as many parts of the rest of the country.
"We had our own little school," Mejia said. "The [elementary] school I went to was Major Hudson Annex. That's where all the Hispanics went."
In his youth, Mejia was fond of reading newspapers and kept up-to-date on the war from its start in 1939. He kept track of his friends and neighbors in the service through newspaper clippings.
"I didn't graduate from high school," he said. "I [enlisted] in my sophomore year, so I went into the war at that time."
Mejia summed up his thoughts at the time about the Germans with a simple comment:
"If them rascals get up there and get England, what's going to stop them from coming over here and jumping in on New York?"
Such thoughts drove Mejia during his Army career. He received most of his training in Fort Benning, Ga. From there, he moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he received his jump training before leaving for Yuma, Ariz., for maneuver training.
Mejia went "clear across country" to the East Coast, then shipped out on a 14-day journey from New York to Belfast, Ireland. He was aboard a troop carrier ship that held men from all divisions. The men trained in Belfast and then were split up. Mejia and the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division were sent to Nottingham, England.
While in England, Mejia and his fellow GIs continued their training. They went on dry runs in C-47s, planes from which they simulated war situations, and they also performed routine practice jumps. A soldier needed to have six training jumps before receiving a jumping badge.
Being a jumper was an important part of his military experience.
"It was a proud moment for a GI to get a badge," Mejia said. "That meant a lot."
In the military, discrimination was subtle, he said. Although he served in an integrated unit, Mejia found the prospects for promotion weren’t readily available to him and other Latinos. It didn’t stop Mejia from becoming a squad leader, however, at which point 12 men came under his guidance.
Upon his promotion, Mejia's first objective was to jump behind enemy lines and neutralize German "pillboxes," enclosed gun emplacements of concrete and steel. The line was located six miles behind Omaha Beach in Normandy. However, the pilot overshot the zone by four miles, dropping the men in an apple orchard. Mejia had to quickly round up his men, using aluminum noisemakers that simulated the sound of crickets. The troops quickly realized the Germans had set up realistic-looking wooden dummy guns, so Mejia and his squad proceeded onward to find the real pillboxes.
Together with help from other divisions, Mejia says he and the other men "knocked out six guns before afternoon."
"We beat the daylights out of them," Mejia said. "We climbed on top of that [pill box] and started throwing grenades inside of them holes."
The squad was then assigned to guard two bridges of importance to the Allies. The bridges were within two miles of Ste. Mere Eglise, and it was thought the Germans wanted to destroy the structures. After capturing many prisoners, Mejia and his squad spent an entire night disconnecting a slew of mines. They set up flags to mark safe passageways for tanks and personnel.
Mejia also crossed the Rhine River at Frankfurt, Germany, jumped in Belgium and crossed into France to participate in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. During that battle, Mejia was wounded in his left knee, and he was transported to England for an operation.
During the war, he kept in touch with his sisters and mother. He remembers his sisters sending him cookies, news articles and fruitcakes. His mother helped him keep in touch with Mexican traditions by sending him buñuelos, a fried tortilla pastry, during the Battle of the Bulge.
Mejia was in Munich training with the 82nd Airborne Division when he learned the war had ended.
He’s proud of the many awards he and his division earned during the war: two Presidential Citations, the Bronze Star Medal, The Belgian Valor Medal and The Holland Military Medal of Valor. Mejia also received the Purple Heart Medal with two clusters, a Combat Infantry Badge, a Jump Badge and a Good Conduct Medal.
Mejia was classified as being 100 percent disabled after receiving three wounds during combat. He also carries mental wounds, which he says he seeks to heal with weekly group therapy with 20 other veterans. The meetings have helped him and others deal with memories of the conflict.
Upon his return from war in March of 1946, Mejia was faced with several difficulties. He needed to find a job and a place to live back in Kansas City. In June, he married Beatrice Marie Muñoz Mejia, and the couple eventually had three children: René, Ronald and Bea Marie.
Finding a job to support his family was difficult. Veterans like Mejia were being told that companies weren’t hiring Mexicans.
Locating a home also proved difficult for the couple. Mejia and his wife spent many months trying to find a Kansas City neighborhood that would accept Mexicans. They’d make deposits, only to be told that neighbors wanted no Mexicans in the neighborhood.
Eventually, Mejia got a job at Simmons Mattress Company. He worked there for 45 years and was chief inspector of the box-spring department. He also was president, at one time, of Local 173 of the Upholsterer's International Union of North America.
Mejia is now retired; he and Beatrice live in Green Valley, Ariz.
Mejia says his experience during the war has left an indelible mark on his personality.
When asked what message he’d like to leave the Latino youth, he responded:
"Forget about being Hispanic. … Go for what you want."
Mr. Mejia was interviewed in San Marcos, Texas, on March 24, 2000, by Aryn Sedler.